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Q&A With Cellist Zuill Bailey

Cellist Zuill Bailey recently sat down to chat about his new Britten: Cello Symphony & Sonata compact disc recorded with Music Director Grant Llewellyn and the North Carolina Symphony, which is being released today, January 14. Daniel Coombs, writing in Audiophile Audition, gives four stars to the project, which was recorded last February. Coombs writes, “Zuill Bailey is an incredible cellist and the North Carolina Symphony under Grant Llewellyn sounds every bit as good as any other orchestra on record.” The CD can be ordered at Read the full review here.

Tell us about the experience of recording with the North Carolina Symphony…
As I said to the orchestra at the very last concert we performed, this was one of the very most inspiring captures of a performance that I have ever been a part of… knowing the complexity of this work.  If everyone wasn’t on their A game, it would have been the opposite of complete success. Working with Grant was wonderful.  I have all the trust and affection for Grant, both as a conductor and as a cellist… In the decade that I have been playing with him, he has not only lived and breathed the pieces as a cellist, but he gave me great confidence.  He has the ability to strengthen those around him.  I knew that whatever I did, he would be with me.

How long did it take for you to prepare to record the CD?  What was your practice schedule like?
My preparation starts with familiarizing myself with a composer in general.  Britten was very different because this was not a piece that was deep in my history… So, the moment the North Carolina Symphony asked about my involvement in the celebration of Britten’s centennial I began opening my life windows to what Britten was all about.  … I didn’t realize what he had done; and what he had done was to have written a piece that was so difficult – primarily because he felt that Mstislav Rostropovich had no limits. As in most of the works that were written for Rostropovich, there is a reinvention of what the cello can do.  Rostropovich had a uniquely shaped left hand, and his technique was miles ahead of most cellists in history.  All composers who wrote for him simply went with what was in their dreams versus thinking “cello wise.”

In this case when I sat down it was about three months prior to the performance and recording, I was struggling to try and figure it out, because I also had no one to talk to about the piece.  No one plays the piece, and it’s very rarely programmed. So I was trying to figure out techniques that are on paper but that have to be translated into a realistic experience with only two shots (at recording)… So to answer your question, the study started a year before and the cello part of it was a few months.

Over the years, how many recordings have you made?
I think I’m almost up to 20. The last few years have been primarily live recordings.  I found that the visceral aspect of live recording is something that is almost unattainable in a studio recording.  This was a mountain to climb… What was so exciting about this project is that the orchestra was as excited as I was, and just as prepared as I was to be ready to go, under quite frankly a situation where we had two shots at it.  There was nothing forgiving.  It shows why the North Carolina Symphony is such a wonderful Symphony – because they produce under the highest pressure at the highest level. 

Any words about what to listen for?
Britten is his own encapsulated vision of music, and it is not necessarily melody based; it is emotion based.  The thing that I think that has thrown most people about Britten’s music and this in particular is that they think that they are going to go in and grab a melody, and it’s not that way.  It’s literally a storm. 

The people who I have explained this to, who have chosen to let it just wash over them again and again, tell me that they could not stop listening to it. If they go into knowing that it is an immersion into a different language, once they grasp the corners of that language, it is like an addiction….  And that makes me so happy.

Thank God for Britten’s 100th birthday because it reinvigorated the adoration that he so richly deserves.  The way Telarc recorded it, you’re in the best seat in the house, and you’re hearing everything – not only the sounds, but the visceral textures that are even difficult to hear when you are playing the Symphony itself from my vantage point.  When I sat down to listen to it, I said “Wow, goose bumps on goose bumps.”  From what I have seen all of the recordings of this piece are studio recordings where they try and manicure it.  This is different...  One of the things that will set this recording apart is that you will hear that.

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